Module Two

Module Two

Land Prices and the Law of Land Rent

2.1.1-2: Introduction

Module 2, Section 1.1-2


1.1 In this course we are presenting a basis for understanding how it has come to be that fewer than three hundred multi-billionaires now have as much wealth as three billion people - half the population on earth at this time. We are asking why millions of people die from hunger and disease each year when there is enough to meet basic needs for everyone. In Module 1 we focused on the issue of Land Rights and Poverty and learned that a disproportionately few people have laid claim to a vast amount of land and natural resources the world over. Module 2 explores another key to understanding the “land problem” – the problem of land price escalation and how wages do not keep pace with the price of housing and other basic needs.

1.2 Luning Wang tells us this about life in his city:

I live in Shanghai, a modern city. Full of rich men live in big house. Full of peasant workers live in shelter. They cast their land and go here to make money. They work as labourers in the factories and building sites. Some are selling small goods and fruit on the street. Full of educated young men graduated from college work in foreign companies day and night to earn their hope. They are busy hard working late until night. The house price is much high than ever. It seems all the people in the city are working for the house. They need to work for their whole life to pay back the debt of the bank. All their money and resources have been kidnapped by the house.


It is likely the case that regardless of where you are residing on the planet right now, you, too, are aware of the problem of rising land prices alongside relatively stagnant wages.


Module 2, Assignment 1

Module 2, Assignment 1

Please write what you have observed about land prices and general wages in your own community. Be sure to also tell us the country in which you live.

2.1.4 & 2.2.1-4: The Problem of the Modern World

1.4 In 1885, Wilson A. Bentley, a self-educated farmer, became the first person to photograph a single snowflake using a microscope combined with a bellows camera.
Bentley demonstrated that if you take the time to look deeply and have the proper equipment you can discover amazing structures. As a student of this course you are on a quest to learn more about land rights and the land tool called “land value capture.” Our next mode of discovery will draw from a line of thought buried within the history of land economics.

Module 1, Section 2.1-4

The Problem of the Modern World

2.1 In his essay “The Problem of the Modern World” John Mohawk states, “When land became a ‘commodity’ and lost its status as provider and sustainer of life, Western civilization began its history of subjugation and exploitation of the earth and earth based cultures. For nearly five centuries people have been coerced from their landholdings. The problem, in the English-speaking world, has its roots in the sixteenth century.”
earth in shopping cart

2.2 Before land privatization, industrialization, and the widespread use of money as a medium of exchange, people everywhere on earth lived in tribes which had defined territories. There were rules of access whereby people of diverse tribes could enter each other’s territories. Within a tribe there were rules and customs regarding land utilization. Sometimes the chief allocated and re-allocated land sites for clans and individual families. Land rights and control often passed to elder sons. Yet there were tribes, for example the Hopi of the American southwest, that passed the decision making over land allocation to a family’s youngest daughter.

Homeless French man in Parisred car in display window above man with bike cart

2.3 Conflicts between tribes were usually border clashes over territory. Violence between human beings has been with us since thigh bones were used to bash in human sculls. One way or another new land rules would be established in peace treaties. However, it is important to note that in tribal societies there were no prisons. No one starved while others feasted. No one was homeless while others were sheltered from the elements. Times of both plenty and scarcity were shared by all.

2.4 Today’s world sees enormous wealth existing sometimes literally alongside abject poverty. The inventive capacities of human beings and the freedom to produce and exchange wealth have given us the possibility that everyone on earth could have their basic needs securely met with plenty of leisure time to develop mental, spiritual and creative potentials. The fact of persistent poverty and shrinking middle classes within developed countries indicates that there is something deeply flawed within the depths of the so-called “market system” structures. The fact that there are hundreds of millions of homeless people on our planet, that tens of thousands starve to death every day, and that more than a billion of us live in abject poverty when there is indeed “enough for everyone” is a stark reminder that some great, underlying injustice exists on earth.


2.5 Module One of this course brought to focus the reality that only a few people have come to own and control vastly more than their fair share of the land and natural resources of the planet. We will now briefly trace how the tribal land tenure systems of Europe transformed into market systems in which land came to be bought and sold and treated as a commodity for speculation and profiteering. Understanding this process should shed light on the difficulties that the people of Africa and elsewhere have faced in their efforts to move from colonialism into democratic structures of post-colonialism.


There is a frenzy now across the country by the rich and powerful in Cambodia to acquire land. - Miloon Kothari, UN special rapporteur on adequate housing,




















2.3.1-18: The Enclosure Period

Module 2, Section 3.1-18

The Enclosure Period

3.1 To understand how it came to be that this most basic and obvious human right - the right to the earth itself - was somehow left out of the founding documents of democracy, it will serve our purpose here to go back to the centuries of European history that John Mohawk is talking about, to the Enclosure Period. This is the time of violent direct suppression of the indigenous people of Europe. Between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, masses of peasants were evicted from their holdings or saw their common lands fenced off for sheep.

3.2 The Enclosures began after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. This was the great charter that King John was forced by the English barons to grant. Traditionally interpreted as guaranteeing certain civil and political liberties, the right to land for the common people was not among them. The first legal act to enforce enclosures was the Statute of Merton of 1235 which spoke of the need to “approve (meaning improve) the land in order to extract greater rent.”

3.3 The enclosures redefined land as “private property” and thereby gave it the status of a commodity, tradable within an expanding market system. Since the majority of people were denied access to the land and were forced to become wage laborers, labor also became a tradable commodity. The enclosures were justified by its perpetrators as necessary in order to make “improvements.”

3.4 Hear the words of Robert Ket, who led the Peasants’ Revolt of 1549 against the enclosures, heavy taxes, and other abuses (1992 Special Issue of The Ecologist, “Whose Common Future?”):


The common pastures left by our predecessors for our relief and our children are taken away. The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in and made several; the pastures are enclosed, and we shut out. Whatsoever, the fowls of the air or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth - all these do they devour, consume and swallow up.... We can no longer bear so much, so great, and so cruel injury; neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess and pride of the nobility.... While we have the same form and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike unto ours, and differ so far from us in calling?


3.6 The rebellion of 1549 was one of many peasant revolts in old Europe. Sixteen thousand insurgents formed a camp near Norwich and “scoured the country around, destroyed enclosures, filled in ditches, leveled fences.”

3.7 Over several hundred years 4,000 Private Acts of Enclosure were passed covering some 7,000,000 acres. Probably the same sized area was enclosed without application to Parliament. About two thirds involved open fields belonging to cottagers while one third involved commons such as woodland and heath. In the census of 1086, more than half the arable land belonged to the villagers. By 1876, only 2,225 people owned half the agricultural land in England and Wales; that 0.6 per cent of the population owned 98.5 per cent of the agricultural land. As newer agricultural methods and technologies were applied, landowners could raise the rents of their lands by phenomenal amounts. As the cash economy developed, the rent money accumulated into the hands of the landholders and the plight of the people worsened. To survive, they sometimes were forced to borrow money from the landholders at high rates of interest.

3.8 By the early 1800s tenant farmers in Ireland had to give their entire crops to the landlords as rent. When their subsistence potato crops failed from blight, there was nothing to fall back on. Some three million people died of starvation and disease between 1845 and 1849, while one million fled to the US and Canada. Ireland’s population of eight million was cut in half. During the famine Ireland exported to England enough grain, cattle, pigs, butter and eggs “to feed the Irish people twice over” as one Irish historian put it.

3.9 A poem from the Enclosures period:

The law hangs the man and flogs the woman
Who steals a goose from off the commons
But turns the greater scoundrel loose
Who steals the commons from the goose.

For More on Enclosures:

3.10 Alastair McIntosh, a modern day Scottish bard, tells us:


The "Highland Clearances," which forced Scottish people off their land from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, were an event of cultural genocide which paralleled and in many respects, pioneered patterns of colonial conquest elsewhere in the British Empire. The effects persist in the national psyche to this day; an aching sense of loss, concealed only by a thin plaster of relative material affluence, and a growing sense of the importance of reclaiming the commons.


3.11 The first wave of the Scottish Highland enclosures, in the second half of the eighteenth century, forced a previously self reliant peasant peoples onto marginal land. This was to clear the interior lands for sheep whilst also creating a waged labour force for the industrialist dominated industries.

3.12 Here is Alastair’s The Scottish Highlands in Colonial & Psychodynamic Perspective In this article he tells us: Today throughout Scotland, just 4,000 people own 80% of private land.This figure would represent 0.08% of the resident population were it not that many are absentee landlords ‑ English aristocrats, Arabian oil sheiks, Swiss bankers, South African industrialists, racing car drivers, pop stars, arms dealers and others not noted for their socio‑ecological awareness.

3.14 Enclosure meant not only the removal of land from subsistence communities, but a profound step towards viewing both the land and its people as things to be traded and exploited. The Enclosure Acts were the greatest single cause of the degradation of labour, driving people into cities where they were forced to work menial factory jobs for starvation wages.

3.15 Many people could not find employment after they had been thrown off their lands. By the time Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, England consequently had some 80,000 itinerant poor with no visible means of subsistence.

3.15 "Improvement," as the reason for the necessity of the Enclosures was termed by its apologists, was associated with “profit” in the same way that today’s term, "development," has become associated with "economic growth." As such, “privatisation” can be viewed as a continuation and extension of the Enclosures.


The cruelest and most important fact of all is that the criterion for the best use of land ceased to be the number of people it could support, and became the amount of profit it could make. - Alastair McIntosh

Wealth and poverty in Manila (slums and cityscape)


3.17 W. R. Lester, in writing about Unemployment and the Land in 1936 had this to say about the colonialization of Kenya, essentially the continuation of the Enclosures that had begun centuries before in Europe:

So white settlers have set about 'civilizing' these people by destroying their tribal land system. They are taking the lands from the natives and wherever they have done so, the result has been an abundant supply of 'labour on the market' with wages kept down by the competition of landless men, just as they are at home.


This is confirmed by evidence given before the Native Labour Commission (Kenya) in 1912 13. Settler after settler came before the commission and demanded in the most precise terms that the natives should be forced out of 'Reserves' to work for wages by cutting down their land so that they should have less than they could live on. Lord Delamere, himself owner of 150,000 acres, said:

If this policy is to be continued, that every native is to be a landholder of a sufficient area on which to establish himself, then the question of obtaining a satisfactory labour supply will never be settled.


The process of reducing men to unemployment and poverty is here stated in all its nakedness and simplicity.... In refusing land (to the people) an 'adequate' supply of labour on the market would be guaranteed.

3.18 The above section explored how the common lands of Europe were enclosed, privatised and turned into a market commodity. As a result, the work of the “common people” was also commodified as they were turned into wage laborers. Great numbers of people were forcefully deprived of access to land and thrown into the labour pool. The enclosure and land commodification process continues to this day throughout the world.

shantytown in Malina

Module 2, Assignment 2

Module 2, Assignment 2

Do you see a similarity between this history of the Enclosures and the current problem of millions of people living in slums? Please write about enclosure and/or land commodification in your own community or country, and/or what you know about your ancestors’ experience of enclosure.

2.4.1-3: The Problem of Treating Land as a Market Commodity

Module 2, Section 4.1-3

The Problem of Treating Land as a Market Commodity

4.1 When both land and people’s labour become market commodities, the only way for most people to gain access to land is to pay for it with cash. But land is in limited supply. The “market” cannot create more land. The competition for land combined with the fact that it is now treated as a commodity for speculation and profit further drives up the price.

4.2 While efficiencies in production create a plethora of physical products, wages do not keep up with the costs of basic necessities when there is no longer free access to land from which to make a living. People must pay an ever greater amount of money to pay the price to either purchase – with interest - or rent land and shelter. Lower income people are being crushed. Millions are homeless, even in “rich” countries. Many well-educated middle class people are having a difficult time keeping up, too.

4.3 Students in Nicaragua who have been studying this problem made a simple chart of housing price escalation over a 14 year period. Here is their chart:

Module 2, Assignment 3

Module 2, Assignment 3

Find statistics and charts about land prices and average wages in your city or community over the past ten years. Ask real estate companies, government agencies, or university economics departments, find news stories and/or search the internet for this information. If you cannot find the data for land values alone, use housing costs as a proximate. Note if land prices in your area are currently “booming” or “busting” – going up or down.

This diagram shows a drastic increase in the costs of land compared to other costs of housing during a 38 year period in the United States:

Describe how this problem – of land and therefore housing costs increasing faster than wages – affects you and your family and/or friends.

2.5.1-9: The Original Factors or Terms of Wealth Production

Module 2, Section 5.1-9

The Original Factors or Terms of Wealth Production


5.1 The classical economists originally used three major terms in the description of the factors of the production of wealth - Land, Labor, and Capital. The term “Land” was used in a broad sense to connote all natural opportunities or forces. “Labor” meant all human exertion applied to the production of wealth. “Capital” referred to all wealth used to produce more wealth – tangible items like tools and technologies. Capital was not the same as money, which as a symbol system was viewed as a convenient method of exchanging goods and services, more efficient than barter.

5.2 The output of production is distributed in returns to these three factors. Land rent is that part that goes to owners of land as payment for the use of natural opportunities. (Note: classical economists simply used the term “rent” which in this context ONLY refers to the return to the owner of land.) Wages are that part that constitutes the reward for human exertion. Interest is that part that constitutes the return for the use of capital (again, defined as wealth produced from labour on land used to produce more wealth, not money or “finance capital.”)

5.3 These terms mutually exclude each other. The income of any individual may be made up from any one, two, or all three of these sources. But to discover the laws of the distribution of wealth we must keep them separate.

The classical economists had a clear understanding of how and why land values increase as population increases and society develops. David Ricardo was the first to formulate the Law of Rent, building on ideas of those who preceded him. He wrote that, when an economy is growing, “rent is not only absolutely increasing, but that it is also increasing in its ratio to the capital employed on the land.”

Adam Smith and Henry George asserted that gains in land value/rent, generated by the efforts of the community as a whole, should be captured for the benefit of the community as a whole. George, in his book Progress and Poverty, explained how the failure to capture increase in land values for public benefits eventually and inevitably results in significant market distortion, severe maldistribution of wealth, and numerous social problems.

Neo-liberal economists eliminated land as one of the three factors of production, subsuming it into capital. They base their arguments on only two factors, labor and capital. Their variety of economics also discarded important concepts about what happens to land values as market economies progress along with the understanding of the root causes of the wealth divide. (For more information on this topic see The Corruption of Economics by Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison.)

5.4 The error of so-called “neoclassical economics” has now been clearly revealed and can be traced to an erroneous viewpoint. It is this flaw that is preventing the neoclassical economics model from solving the problem of poverty alongside progress.

5.5 We live in a society where capitalists hire labor. They thus seem to be the initiators or first movers in production. Neoclassical economists look to capital as the prime factor in production. They see land as its instrument, and labor as its agent or tool. This viewpoint is in the form and course of their reasoning, in the character of their illustrations, and even in their choice of terms. Everywhere capital is the starting point, and the capitalist the central figure.

5.6 Although Adam Smith clearly defined the three factors of production as Land, Labour, and Capital, he later adopted the view that Capital employs Labour. Yet Smith retained a fundamental understanding of the Law of Rent. He said: Every improvement in the circumstances of society tends either directly or indirectly to raise the real rent of land, to increase the wealth of the landlord. (Wealth of Nations, Book I, p. 275). This part of Smith's economic thought is rarely mentioned. For more quotes from economists who had some understanding of the Land Problem and the Law of Rent please go to Quotes at the top of the course website and click on the Economists section. For more on the problem of how neoclassical economics obscures the issue of land and natural resource rights read this paper which formed the basis for the aforementioned Corruption of Economics.!index.htm.

5.7 When we consider the origin and natural sequence of things, we see that capital does not come first, it comes last. Capital as “wealth used to produce more wealth” is not the employer of labor -- it is, in reality, produced by labor, both mental and physical labour, beginning with labour on land and natural resources.

5.8 There must be land before labor can be exerted. And labor must be exerted before capital can be produced. Capital is a result of labor, a form of labor, a subdivision of the general term. It is only stored-up labor, used by labor to assist in further production. Labor is the active and initial force. Therefore, labor is the employer of capital, not vice versa -- and it is even possible for labor to produce wealth directly from raw materials without being aided by capital.

5.9 So the natural order is this: Land, Labor and Capitol. Instead of using Capital as our initial point, we should start from Land.

Module 2, Assignment 4

Module 2, Assignment 4

Wherever you are right now simply look around for a few moments. Consider that everything you see that is human made was originally some form of natural, raw material. If you have any thoughts, please contribute them below.

2.6.1-4: The Law of Land Rent

What is Land Rent?

Classical political economists (Adam Smith, John Locke, David Ricardo) observed that no rent could be commanded for land as long as comparable land was available for free. However, when the best land is used up or enclosed by particular individuals or groups, then the next best quality of land is utilized (although at a higher cost of production) and then the next best (at a still higher cost of production) and so forth. As a result, “land rent” was defined as the different in the cost of production on the poorest or least favorable tract of “no rent” land being used and the cost of production on areas of land with better soil or more favorable locations.

The uniqueness of land as an Economic asset stems from its fixed supply and immobility. It is an indispensable part of all kinds of Economic activities i.e., Agrarian, Industrial or Service. Land rent is the price annually paid for the exclusive right to use a certain location, piece of land or other natural resources.

The market value of any particular parcel of land is a product of the locational advantages enjoyed by it which in turn are facilitated by nature and the benefits and services provided by the community. Land value can be considered as the relationship between a desired location and a potential user. The ingredients that constitute land value are utility, scarcity and desirability. 'Land Rental Value' is the annual fee individuals are willing to pay for the exclusive right to use a land site for a period of time.

Whatever is not collected as Land Rent will be capitalized into the Market Value of lands by the landowners. Exorbitant rates of market value of land are impediments to emerging entrepreneurial activities involving land. Landowners sell the Capitalized Land Rent, i.e., Land Value which is uncollected by the community even though it is unearned income. This widens the disparity between landowners and non land owners.

Because of the type of property-in-land system in place in much of our world, there is profit to be made from simply holding (owning, claiming) valuable land sites or large tracts of land. As development intensifies cost of land further increases due to land speculation and hoarding. The landless and coming generations must pay a steadily rising amount for land access. Eventually, increasing numbers of people who could otherwise be productive and well able to meet their basic needs are driven to subsistence levels and worse because they cannot pay the inflated land costs.

The rental value of land sites comprises at least about 20% to 30% of gross domestic product (GDP) in most countries, an amount that in poorer countries is sometimes greater than all government spending combined. The land value capture capacity of land is an even larger fraction of GDP where population is densest and competition for good land consequently most intense. Where extraction of oil or minerals is the major industry of a country or region, total natural resource rents can even exceed 50% of GDP. Economists call private pursuit of this publicly created value “rent seeking.” Many now view this as a method of obtaining unearned gains at society's expense and thus a root cause of the worldwide grossly inequitable distribution of wealth.

Justice requires that land values, which are created by society and nature, be made available for public improvements. This is the responsibility of good government.

Note: The What is Land Rent? section draws from Land Rent Structure an article by Sanjeeb Mishra, a member of the Indian Administrative Service, and District Magistrate and Collector, Ganjam (Orissa, India).

Module 2, Section 6.1-4

The Law of Land Rent

The theoretical and analytical insights of classical economists concerning land and land values hold important keys for how to harness market forces to more readily secure affordable access to land, hence enabling people to procure adequate shelter and fulfill other basic needs. Correcting market distortions by capturing land values for use by the public sector while reducing or eliminating taxes on labor and production, is a major one of those keys.

6.1 This series of graphs will help you better understand the problem of land price inflation, the root cause of the maldistribution of wealth, and how the few come to own and control most of the capital as well as the land. NOTE: These ten graphs are on the Henry George Institute website. After #10 please return back to this Land Rights course website.

  1. Understanding Economics: The Law of Rent
  2. Law of Rent 2 – First Comer – Keeps All Wages
  3. Law of Rent 3 – Second Comer – Rent Begins
  4. Law of Rent 4 – Third Comer – Further Rise of Rent
  5. Law of Rent 5 - Fourth Comer – All Land Used
  6. Law of Rent 6 – Other Natural Differences
  7. Law of Rent 7 – Growth of Population
  8. Law of Rent 8 – Effect of Industrial Growth
  9. Law of Rent 9 – Land Speculation
  10. Law of Rent 10 – Speculation Abolished

The predictability of the "law of rent" - that land values will continually rise, and faster than wages - fuels frenzies of land speculation and inevitable bust that follows the boom.

6.2 Adam Smith did have some understanding of this problem of rent. He said:

Every improvement in the circumstances of society tends either directly or indirectly to raise the real rent of land, to increase the wealth of the landlord.

6.3 Speculation Eliminated – A closer look.

6.4 Click On: One Step Deeper – This Law of Rent chart shows that by eliminating speculation and land hoarding and using the land efficiently the community can afford to provide infrastructure and services even while spending less public revenue than before!

Module 2, Assignment 5

Module 2, Assignment 5

Questions and Answers - Please answer in the responses section.

  • How does the Law of Rent relate to the section on the Enclosures?
  • What might be the reasons why slum dwellers move from rural areas to the cities?
  • Who owns or controls the land of a particular slum that you might be familiar with?
  • Who pays the land rent to whom in slum areas?
  • Can you see the Law of Rent operating in your community or city? Describe how.
  • Where is land rent highest in the area where you live?

Module 2, Sections 6.5-6: Land Value Scape

Module 2, Sections 6.5-6

6.5 LandValueScapes help reveal what is going on around us in terms of changes to property and land values, so that we are better informed in government, business and as citizens when we make decisions about ‘place’. They are important visual “land tools” for both urban planning and the topic of this course – land rights and land value capture. You will be learning about this and other land value capture tools in Module 5 of this course.





6.6 Please view: Ricardo’ Law – The Great Tax Clawback Scam – Fred Harrison on YouTube describes the scam of “progressive” taxation and how families on the lowest income levels subsidize the lives of the rich. This video is the conclusion to Module 2 and will serve as a summary of sorts of the key points you have learned. It will also be helpful as an introduction to the land value capture policy you will learn about in Module 3. After viewing this video you may continue on to Module 3 or else first learn more about The Enclosures from this Optional Reading:


More on Enclosures

Thomas More (1478-1535), Chancellor of England, who some say was the most learned justice and scholar in the realm at the time, made passionate pleas against the cruel injustices when whole villages were being pulled down to make way for the more profitable industry of sheep farming and families were turned adrift onto the roads to starve. His plan for a better England was based upon a thorough Common Ownership.[17] More was murdered as a martyr. The root meaning of this word martyr is “one who remembers and cares.”

In England in 1648 the Diggers were sounding a lot like land rights prophets. Gerrard Winstanley, in his New Law of Righteousness, clearly saw the forces at play when he said, “The rich, in their enclosure saying ‘this is mine’ and the poor upon the commons saying ‘this is ours, the earth and its fruits are common.’ ... Leave off dominion and lordship one over another for the whole bulk of mankind are but one living earth!”[18]

Over several hundred years 4,000 Private Acts of Enclosure were passed covering some 7,000,000 acres. Probably the same sized area was enclosed without application to Parliament. About two thirds involved open fields belonging to cottagers while one third involved commons such as woodland and heath. In the census of 1086, more than half the arable land belonged to the villagers. By 1876, only 2,225 people owned half the agricultural land in England and Wales and that 0.6 per cent of the population owned 98.5 per cent of it.[19] As newer agricultural methods and technologies were applied, landowners could raise the rents of their lands by phenomenal amounts. As the cash economy developed, the rent money accumulated into the hands of the landholders and the plight of the people worsened. To survive, they sometimes were forced to borrow money from the landholders at high rates of interest.

Ireland’s story at the end of the Enclosures period is that of many in the Third World today. In 1801 Britain made Ireland part of its empire and dissolved the Irish Parliament. By now the Protestants had the upper hand and were given a voice in the British Parliament while the Catholic majority had none. Heavy taxation was placed on Irish goods, and the British controlled almost all of Ireland’s farmland. Tenant farmers had to give their entire crops to the landlords as rent. When their subsistence potato crops failed from blight, there was nothing to fall back on. Some three million people died of starvation and disease between 1845 and 1849, while one million fled to the US and Canada. Ireland’s population of eight million was cut in half. During the famine Ireland exported to England enough grain, cattle, pigs, butter and eggs “to feed the Irish people twice over” as one Irish historian put it. This information is from an article by Elizabeth Ward called “When Ireland was Europe’s Ethiopia.”[20]

Martin Luther

Until the 16th century the Church was the Catholic Church. Its corruptions provoked the rise of Protestant Reformism. In 1524 the peasants of Swabia, a region in what is now Germany, brought Martin Luther a document Twelve Articles, appealing to him for his understanding. The peasants said it was their intention “to excuse in a Christian way the disobedience and even the rebellion of the peasants” and to describe “the basic and chief articles ... concerning the matters in which they feel they are being denied their rights.” The peasants based each one of their Articles[9] on specific chapters and verses of the Old and New Testament. They requested release from serfdom, relief from heavy taxation, fair and just laws, and access to what was once their commons - the forests, fields and water resources - to meet their basic needs. In response Luther wrote his Admonition to Peace urging the princes to be kind and the peasants to be peaceful and the appointment of an arbitration commission. Before the Admonition to Peace could be published, the land was flooded with insurrection, arson, pillage, and murder.

The disturbances among the peasants were establishing an association between the Reformation and revolution that was alienating many of Luther’s supporters while his refusal to identify the Reformation with the program of The Twelve Articles antagonized many of the common people. For Luther the real problem was to defeat the Devil. It was more important to him that law and order be maintained and the gospel be preached than that the pleas of the peasants be addressed. The peasants had gone to Luther for moral and spiritual support and to respectfully communicate their conditions and requests to him. Instead of standing in solidarity with the poor and oppressed as Jesus had done, Luther wrote pamphlets calling for the punishment of “the thieving, murderous gangs of peasants.”[10] Regarding the peasants as unruly pagans, Luther believed their rebellions were instigated by Satan.

Beginning with the first act of enclosure and throughout the following period of several hundred years, as the land was enclosed the women and men and the earth based religion of the peoples of northern Europe were brutally repressed. Women who practiced healing and agriculture, who had their own lands and were leaders of their communities were tortured, hanged, or burned at the stake. The Holy Inquisitions was a women’s holocaust; about 85 percent of those killed were women. Some say their murders numbered in the millions.[11] I consider this to be the most significant story of the past two thousand years for women of European descent. Much of what we have learned about history is just that - “his story.” The women’s holocaust is a terrible “her story” and my sisters are still recovering on deep levels of their collective psyche from that horrific repression, torture and murder. The European indigenous women were strong and clear wild women with equal status to their men. They could stand their ground because they had access to the common lands. The imperial forces called them witches. Martin Luther said, “I would have no compassion on the witches! I would burn them all.”[12]

How did the forces of Christianity, based upon the stories of a loving, healing Jesus, come to be aligned with the forces of an imperialist state and a corrupted church? To answer this question let us now fast forward to the twentieth century and the questions of a man in another part of this world.

Early Christian Teachings

Charles Avila was a Catholic seminarian in the Philippines in the 1960s. One of his professors in the Divine Word Seminary constantly criticized the Church’s utter lack of identification with the poor. He persuaded Avila and other students to accompany him on his regular visits to prisoners in various Philippine jails. During his visits Avila heard story after story of how these people had been evicted from lands they had tilled for generations. He came to realize that what was referred to as “the Peasant Question” was literally that: the question the peasants asked. It was a question on the level of “first principles” which are very rarely subjected to review, but which form the threshold of all our thinking. The Peasant Question was this: ‘What is just with regard to the land?’

Avila learned from the leading lawyer in the peasant movement that the philosophy of ownership which was the basis of property laws and practices in the Philippines, as well as of most modern legal systems, actually went a long way back in history - all the way back to Roman law. Roman law developed the ownership concept which legitimized the accumulation of wealth by a few at the expense of the impoverishment of the many. As Avila was thinking about a topic for his seminary dissertation, he wondered whether there might be early Christian philosophers of the period of the Roman Empire who had anything significant to say about the ownership concept. Most of the faculty warned him that he would be wasting his time pursuing this topic; his social justice professor, however, urged him to dig into the Latin and Greek writings concerning that period.

Avila scoured through 383 volumes and discovered that the early Christian leaders indeed had all dealt with the question of ownership and Roman law. The writings he discovered were of great assistance to the Filipino peasant movement. In 1983 Avila published his research and these patristic writings as a book entitled Ownership: Early Christian Teachings.[13] Over and over again, Avila found, early Christians had railed against the Roman law concept of ownership as an “exclusive and unlimited right to dispose of a thing, to the exclusion of all others.” The Roman land law of “dominium” meant the legalization of property in land originally obtained by conquest and plunder. The original Judeo-Christian land ethic had been that of koinonia - land was God’s gift to the community as a whole for the autarkeia or self-sufficient livelihood of all.[14]

One of Jesus’s tasks was to restore the original intent of the Jubilee, the period every fifty years when lands were to be returned to their original owners or their heirs: “[The Lord] has anointed me to preach good news to the proclaim release of set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”[15] As theologian Walter Brueggeman explains in Land: the Foundation of Humanness the “acceptable year” is the year of the Jubilee. The “release of captives” is the release of debt slaves who had lost their land because they could not pay their mortgage. A crucial aspect of Jesus’s mission was the re-assertion of the land rights of the poor and displaced. The Bible expresses the fundamental recognition that the earth is the Lord’s, to be fairly shared and stewarded by all:

The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me. (Lev. 25:23)

The profit of the earth is for all. (Eccles. 5:9)

Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place. (Isaiah 5:8)

Restore, I pray you, to them even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive yards, and their houses. (Nehemiah 5:11).


(More quotes from the Ancients, Spiritual and Religious teachings are in the Quotes section.)

Christianity lost its mission of economic justice when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire and was adapted to or grafted onto, the Roman land law of dominium. From that time forward Christianity went hand-in-hand with the forces of conquest of the land-grabbing imperialist state. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Before the Europeans came to Africa, we had the land and they had the Bible. We bowed our heads to pray, and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

The important and vital truth not enunciated or affirmed in our founding democratic covenants is the truth that we, each and every one of us, has an equal right to the earth as our birthright. How did we lose this simple truth, the primal perception that the earth is the birthright of all people?